Now-retracted chem paper’s problems “should have been noticed by the referees,” group says

Last year, chemist Marcus Tius at the University of Hawaii saw a paper describing the synthesis of some organic compounds, and was “struck by the implausibility” of the reported structures. So he joined up with some colleagues to try to replicate the data.

While Tius and his team were trying to repeat the experiment, however, in December 2017 the journal — Organic Letters — retracted the paper. The journal, published by the American Chemical Society, noted that the authors had not been able to produce crystal structures that confirm they had synthesized those compounds in particular. So Tius and his colleagues knew they couldn’t replicate the findings — but carried on their experiment anyway:

We continued our work and have completed the project for reasons of academic interest and also to provide the results in this short note that should serve as a cautionary reminder to authors and referees of the importance of validating chemical structures with complete experimental and spectral data sets.

Tius and his colleagues describe their attempts to replicate a paper they knew couldn’t be replicated in Tetrahedron Letters, in which they conclude:

The take home lesson form this exercise is clear: more attention should be paid to the reported experimental data and their integrity. It should have been noticed by the referees that the authors did not obtain/report IR spectra for any of the compounds…Perhaps a more rigorous attention to review may eliminate similar occurrences in the future. We enjoyed this particular exercise but one has to wonder how many other erroneous results are contained in today’s literature.

Here’s the retraction notice for the paper in question:

The authors retract this article on the basis that the reported cyclobutadiene structures are not fully supported by their 13C NMR data. Since publication, the authors were not able to obtain a crystal structure to clearly confirm the published work and rule out other plausible structures.

The original article was published on August 17, 2017 and retracted on December 11, 2017.

The paper, “Access to Cyclobutadienes via an Organocatalytic Dienamine–Iminium–Allenamine Cascade Approach,” has been cited three times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. The researchers are based at Tsinghua University in China.

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